The Other Reality

Philosophy of History

Posted in Annotation, MFA, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on December 27, 2008

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: schoken Books, 1969. 253-264.

Walter Benjamin writes on history in the form of theses (the title should clue you in to this) so sometimes it seems that the topics jump around but that’s ok because there is, I think, some greater themes here that can be drawn out. Reading this I sometimes feel that I’m missing the point and I tend to be left asking more questions than I started with. Is it enough to ask the questions as an attempt to understand the material or do I need answers to these questions? Do I need to understand what Benjamin is saying exactly so that I can then form opinions around that? What if I don’t understand everything he says? Does that mean that the opinions I form are void? I know these musings probably relate to more than just this essay by Benjamin but since they apply here I wanted to get them out in the open.

There are a couple things that I think should be defined before I go anywhere with this, “historicism” and “historical materialism”. I didn’t understand the differences at first so I think a clarification is important. So here goes, historical materialism is part of the Marxist theory of history and it claims that the economic structure influences social thought, as well as perpetuates certain events, i.e. “each ruling economic class produces the class that will destroy or replace it” ( Historicism centers around the idea “that events are determined or influenced by conditions and inherent processes beyond the control of humans” and that each era should be studied separately without imposing personal values (The American Heritage Dictionary). So, with that out of the way lets continue.

One of the first things he talks about is our image of happiness. In any given moment you cannot be envious of the future it is only when looking at the past that you can become envious because it “exists in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us” (Benjamin 254). This seems to speak of the lost possibilities and in the present moment you are unaware of the things that you miss out on or potential opportunities that are never realized. He says this applies to our past too. In the present moment our image of happiness is “bound up with the image of redemption,” the idea of these possibilities (Benjamin 254). Each generation has this Messianic power to redeem. What exactly can we redeem though? The past? The history of the oppressed and those who were “forgotten” to histories? Or does it relate to future as well? Does Benjamin mean to say that each generation has the ability to redeem the current situation?

He says “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” (Benjamin 254). This goes along with the idea of historical materialism because it suggests that even things that seem unimportant when they happened could have an effect on history. No event is so isolated that it has no effect on anything else.

The theme of class struggle in relationship to history is pretty prevalent in this essay and it makes sense considering Benjamin’s Marxist approach. He mentions that while class struggle is for the necessity of basic rights/things that spiritual things come out of the struggle too. Things like, “courage, humor, cunning and fortitude” but these things make people question the victory of the rulers. So, it seems that those who become the rulers, even if they started out as the struggling class, appear to the next struggling class as having been better off. (Am I making any sense here?).

He keeps talking about this in relation to how history presents itself. History ‘flits’ by and we need to seize it. Historicism might think that all history is available, organized in a convenient timeline but it’s a little more complicated than that. The past is fragile. The truth about what happened can be lost if the present doesn’t recognize it.  It can disappear. This relates to class struggle in that how we view history effects how we view rulers (or even how rulers view ruling). If historicism sides with the victors, since history is often written by the “winners,” then historical materialism is a little more weary of them. The rulers/victors do have a lot of control because if they do not record history as it presents itself (or allow that history to be written) then things can become completely lost. Also he talks about the cultural barbarism associated with victors. They step over those they conquer and take the hold of their cultural treasures.  So these things get passed from victor to victor and they exist, if you chose to see it this way, as a testament to these struggles and the barbarism involved.

Struggle is the rule. No one should be surprised that horrible things can still happen today. It is when we forget and become comfortable that bad things happen because we have become unprepared for them and are not keeping a careful eye on things. I think that this is pretty accurate but thinking about this in relationship to current events I think that it can be used against people. Maybe I’m drawing similarities here that wont make sense to anybody but while I think it is important to be in a “state of emergency” (always prepared for and never surprised by the idea that there are people out there who are willing to oppress others) I think that it is also possible to use the idea of constant vigilance as a way to control people (if oppress is too strong a word to use here). If people are constantly afraid of what might happen then they may allow freedoms to be taken from them. That’s all I’ll say for now.

The imagery for the angle of history is striking:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angle would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angle can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin 257-258)

Does the idea and desire for progress prevent us from fixing things? Do we get to caught up in wanting “progress” that we fail to focus on aspects of society that really need it? And is that just another way that rulers can oppress others? Can people be convinced that they are helping to achieve progress by working when in actuality they become tools for the ruling class?

What else? The struggling class is the “depository of historical knowledge” (Benjamin 260). Lets see, what does that mean? If it is the comfortable classes that are meant to be the savior of the lower classes its not very effective. When you’re comfortable you lose the “hatred and spirit of sacrifice” that enable change (Benjamin 160). You need to be fueled by those things with the remembrance of oppressed ancestors otherwise you’ll be content in keeping the status quo. Revenge of the past is stronger than a hope for the future.

To understand history you need to empathize with it. If you look at it coolly from only one spot in history you cannot understand how it relates to other histories and events. I’ve seen Benjamin’s “Jetztzeit” interpreted as “now-time” and as “here-and-now-time” I may not understand it in full, however I think one aspect of this is explained as being involved with how people appropriate and understand the past through their current situations. Benjamin talks about this in relationship to fashion. Whenever you look at out-dated fashions you can always find something that relates to current styles and vice versa current fashions evolve from past styles. We relate the past to our present, we see what is similar, what we want to see. We can use history for our purpose and make it relevant to our time.

How do you sum this up? I think at a very basic level it is all about being able to learn from history. Viewing history as if nothing we do contributes to the outcome of what happens does not provide the impetus to do anything. It lends itself to apathy. But if you approach every event as being meaningful to history and that you contribute to it, it means that the choices made are important. It connects the past events to the present and therefore provides the understanding that the events of the present will affect the future. Understanding the past, empathizing with those who struggled in the past, means that you can see the bigger picture. This is important if you want the human situation to improve.

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